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Hydrogen, hype and oil

The folk at the U.S. techie magazine Wired have been celebrating 10 years of existence. On the whole I have enjoyed reading that publication, notwithstanding its occasional teenage-like cockiness, obsession with fashion and suchlike. On the whole I regard their particular northern Californian brand of breezy optimism to be a tonic compared to a lot of doom and gloom stuff that comes our way. They are also consistent defenders of privacy and exude a pretty strong libertarian cultural vibe, though many of their authors could not be classed as out and out libertarians.

In the April edition, Wired got two authors, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall to write about the need for the U.S. government to launch a $100 billion venture on getting the country linked up to hydrogen power in order to wean Americans off their addiction to oil. A lot of reasons are given, many of them pretty obvious, such as reducing reliance on oil from the instable Middle East and reducing carbon dioxide emissions because of the so-called Greenhouse effect.

Their article contains a lot of impressive facts and figures as well as calls to embark on a hydrogen project with the same fervour that JFK asked Americans to put a man on the Moon. But that is my problem with this article, as it applies just as much to Britain as it does to the U.S.A. Surely, do we really want vast amounts of taxpayers’ money spent encouraging big energy firms to move into this technology, when that is bound to provide endless opportunities for pork-barrel politics, and the like? And while it was a magnificent achievement, putting men on the Moon came at a vast cost and the bloated bureacracy of NASA is surely a warning of what can happen with such projects, as Rand Simberg has pointed out many times before.

Ultimately, if the price of oil rises to a level which means sharp entrepreneurs think hydrogen-powered energy solutions make sense, it will happen. After all, the oil industry got started in the late 19th century without a vast government-led project. The best thing governments can do in this area is like pretty much everywhere else – GET OUT OF THE GODDAM WAY!

44 comments to Hydrogen, hype and oil

  • If this technology works out, then reducing dependence on oil might not be such a good idea after all.

  • If this technology works out, then reducing dependence on oil might not be such a good idea after all.

  • Johnathan

    Of course, when folk talk about “dependence” on oil, it conjures up the idea that somehow we are compelled to use cars and suchlike powered by oil at gunpoint. Not so. The advantages of oil at present far outweigh the cons.

    Of course I also mentioned the Greenhouse Effect. In case anyone mentions this, I remain to be convinced that the Greenhouse Effect is the menace some claim it to be, although unlike some libertarian free marketeers, I don’t deny that global warming, if it is really happening, could be a menace.

    I am not really able to comment on the tech feasibility of hydrogen, and how we store the stuff at places like gas stations, and so on.

  • Larry

    The article is absurd and misleading.

    Unlike the other alternatives listed — coal, natural gas, wind, water, solar, and nuclear — hydrogen is not an energy source. It’s a storage medium, like batteries.

    We typically make hydrogen from hydrocarbonds or water, a process that uses energy — more energy input than results from burning the output hydrogen.

    As a storage medium, it might work well with centralized power sources — nuc, solar — although at a high conversion cost.

    This makes sense as the 2nd phase of a conversion process. To reduce dependece on oil, replace oil-burning power plants first. Probably as they age out.

    Then consider the cost/benefit of alternative storage devices for cars/trucks. At that point new tech might have reduced the cost to reasonable levels.

    Note that first step does little to reduce pollution, esp. we replace oil with coal (cheap, abundent).

  • Ryanspeed

    Larry is correct, the primary source of hydrogen today is from natural gas, and his characterization of hydrogen as a storage medium is right-on.

    However, there are many “clean” energy solutions currently proposed that, when further scrutinized, have similar problems. For example, many wax on about the amount of solar energy that could be harnessed; however, that energy must again be stored and reused. If this energy were stored in conventional batteries, the amount of heavy metals and acids required to make all of those batteries would create an environmental catastrophe when disposed of. There would need to be a significant amount of energy input for the purification of these materials and an equal amount of energy input required for the recycling of said materials. Even if we found a way to store solar energy, without any of the aforementioned problems, the production of solar cells themselves would generate vast amounts of chemical waste products.

    Many of the “environmentally freindly” cars in production now have hundreds of pounds of batteries, and recieve thier electrical power from the wall socket. If you were to ask many of the owners of these cars where that energy comes from, they would have no clue that the majority of our domestic electrical energy comes from coal combustion. I think that I would rather drive an oil-burning car than to derive my power from coal!

    I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

  • matt

    How long before the Chancellor introduces a ‘Turkey guts’ duty? Strikes me as messy, filling the tank would be a fowl job etc…

    Does anyone know if there was any truth to the oft repeated claim that Oil companies are not only lobbying against alternative energy sources but actively suppressing their development? It was a favoured consipracy theory a few years ago.

  • Phil Bradley

    Ignoring whether hydrogen fuel cells are a good idea or not (and frankly I am sceptical), there are good arguments for government funding of R&D.

    Commercial companies generally don’t take the risk of developing new technologies when there is no clear commercial payoff, especially when risk capital is in short supply as is the case currently.

    There are many examples of how government R&D funding resulted in new technologies and even new industries, including the internet.

  • Here in L.A. we used to have trains running all over the city. Then GM and other companies secretly bought up the train companies, let them fail, and then sold buses to the city. That was many decades ago, but perhaps it’s because of things like that that conspiracy theories about alternative energy have traction.

    As far as NASA is concerned, I’m not familiar with what others think about this, but I doubt that the U.S. would have landed on the moon in the 60s if it had been left up to private companies. Where’s the (immediate) profit? Recall Sputnik, the Space Race, etc. etc.

  • blabla


    Commercial companies generally don’t take the risk of developing new technologies when there is no clear commercial payoff

    So why should govt? Would these companies have spent more on R&D if their profits weren’t extorted from them by govt to fund R&D?

    There are many examples of how government R&D funding resulted in new technologies and even new industries, including the internet.

    And what technologies were lost when this funding was extorted from taxpayers and corporations?

    That which is seen and that which is not seen.

  • Larry’s last point is a good one. Because Hydrogen doesn’t produce energy…the pollution caused by fossil fuels isn’t really eliminated, merely relocated from the cities to power plants.

  • Doug Collins

    Comments? Yeah- that article prompts a bunch of them.

    1. All the fuel cell proponents, these writers included, seem to be in love with hydrogen, when lots of other (oh the Horror!) hydrocarbon compounds should theoretically work in a fuel cell, with far simpler supply and storage problems. As I understand it, a fuel cell is simply a means of controlling an oxidation-reduction reaction (which transfers electrons-negative electrical charges- from one ingredient to another, oxidizing one(adding electrons-not necessarily having anything to do with oxygen) and reducing the other(removing electrons). Toss a match in a puddle of gasoline and you have an oxidation reduction reaction: the gasoline compounds are oxidized and the air is reduced.
    All a fuel cell does is to get in the middle of the reaction and use the two ingredients as a sort of battery. The electrons go off through a wire, do some work somewhere and return to complete the reaction.
    Hydrogen makes the reaction very simple, just 2H2+O2->2H2O, which is all very nice but at the cost of some severe practical problems. Sure you don’t produce any CO2, but the article later points out that when the hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons, the same CO2 is nonetheless produced earlier in the supply chain. This is like the electric cars that are powered by an outlet in the garage. The owner can kid himself that he is not burning any dirty hydrocarbons and is only using clean electricity as long as he doesn’t look past his electric meter.
    If methane or other simple hydrocarbon compounds are used in the fuel cell, the storage and supply problems become simpler. Molecular hydrogen is the smallest molecule – just six quarks and two electrons. It tends to diffuse through welds, rubber and even steel. It is very hard to condense or compress and it is extemely explosive. It doesn’t pipeline very well and if it has to be transported very far it would almost certainly be recombined with some carbon, then reseparated again just for reasons of safety and economy.
    But if we are looking at other hydrocarbons, then we are back to those evil fossil fuels.

    2. The article said that fuel cells are efficient – 2 times as efficient as internal combustion engines. This is like saying that Fu Manchu was twice as kind as Saddam Hussein. Gasoline engines are about 20%-25% efficient. That is not so good. One of the major reasons for their inefficiency is the fact that their fuel is a mixture of all sorts of hydrocarbons with variable vaporization temperatures. So what shoots into your engine is a mixture of explosive gases and non explosive, essentially non burning liquids. The liquids shoot out having contributed little to the power of the engine. In fact, the catalytic converter – a typical government solution to a problem – just converts the liquids to water and CO2 without producing anything but a bigger hole in your wallet.

    The “Hundred MPG Carburators” of the 1930’s did exist as curiosities. Unfortunately they were such a mass of heaters and plumbing, necessary to vaporize most or all of the fuel, that they weighed as much as the engine itself. Nowadays, I have to wonder if a more compact, solid state carburator, perhaps using exhaust heat, couldn’t accomplish the same thing. That would make it about twice as efficient as these fuel cells.

    3. Remember the Hindenburg! I bet Osama can’t wait until we have hydrogen storage facilities in all the big cities.

    4. “But what about Wind, Waves and Water Power?”, say all the tree huggers. Well what about them? We have been waiting for about a quarter century now and we are still waiting. They are not mobile or cheap or widely useable. If you are not on a seacoast, near a waterfall or in Kansas, you are going to have to get your energy pipelined or wired to you. More cost. Also the whole idea of using more energy to dissociate hydrogen from water than you get by burning it later ought to be considered when comparing the efficiency of fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

  • Doug:

    Good points. Ballard Power Systems, a company local to where I live, has had a lot of success marketing their fuel cells to major companies in the auto industry. Their most successful applications run on natural gas, not hydrogen, probably because it’s more practical.

    One thing that causes a lot of confusion about combustion engines is that combustion efficiency plays a fairly small role in determining the overall efficiency of the engine. I don’t have the figures at hand, but the combustion efficiency of contemporary auto engines is quite good. Most of the “lost” energy comes from either theoritical thermodynamic limitations of the heat cycle (which can’t be avoided), or from practical limitations such as internal friction and the need to cool engine components. All the fancy carburettors and control systems in the world will have no effect on those factors.

    Recycling heat from the exhaust system has promise. In fact, that’s what turbocharging does, and that’s one reason it’s so common on diesel engines.

  • Doug Collins


    You seem to be more knowledgeable about auto engines than I am. Is combustion efficiency better than I thought? Do modern engines manage to burn the nonvaporized part of the fuel or does fuel injection make small enough droplets to overcome this problem? If a significant fraction of the fuel is not burned, a major efficiency loss seems unavoidable to me.

  • Larry

    Embedded above are comments on R&D, to my mind more important thant the almost mythical benefits of fuel cells.

    We have NASA taking us to the moon. And we have fusion, atomic powered airplanes, and countless other failed or (more kindly) premature technologies, that private — even academic — R&D outfits would not have lavishly funded.

    Was NASA a success? To my mind, no. We landed on the moon and got a few great rocks, and other odds & ends of knowledge. But not worth the cost.

    What we should have received for this almost unimaginable investment: a useful space infrastructure. A working station doing useful research at a reasonable cost, paving the way for orbital industry, acting as a low-earth orbit launch station for moon & solar probes.

    Only a gov’t could tackle a project with such promise, spend so much, and get so little.

  • Julian Morrison

    There are 2 main supposed sources of hydrogen:

    – electrolyse it, given power from someplace else (whoops, pollution!)

    – make it from oil (whoops, this was supposed to *reduce* dependence on oil, not use more oil for less oomph, right?)

  • Sometimes, government intervention in “forcing” new technologies can be worthwhile. The estimable motor journalist, engineer and libertoid Gordon Jennings (RIP) chalked up the existence of the air cooled aircraft engine to the U.S. Navy, which forced contractors (and the market) to develop technology that wasn’t in existence at the time it was demanded (around 1922).

    The Navy wanted air cooled engines because they would be lighter, allowing planes to fly farther and faster on less fuel than heavy water cooled engines. The defense contractors said “nope, can’t be done.” The Navy said, “Okay, no fat defense contracts.” Within a decade, the aircraft manufacturers were cranking out reasonably good, lightweight air cooled engines, at an only slightly exhorbitant cost. The military technology eventually found its way into the civilian market, much like the way Stealth Technology ™ has clearly infiltrated the dress socks & clothes dryer market.

    I’m not sold on hydrogen fuel cells, cold fusion, or harnessing thousands of ordinary house cats to giant treadmills, BTW, but I think anything that reduces our reliance on militant Wahabbi lunatics is a national defense issue, and worth looking into.

  • Try Ken‘s link right at the top to this article about converting lots of different kinds of waste into oil cheaply.

    Quite an interesting piece, and more promising, I think, than investing in hydrogen-burning engines.

  • Byron

    Honestly, did anyone besides Mark and I even check Ken’s link at the top of this comment thread? How a groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting discovery like that can not only go unreported by Samizdata, but uncommented as well is beyond me. Here are some excerpts:

    In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that can change almost anything into oil.


    “This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind,” says Brian Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, the company that built this pilot plant and has just completed its first industrial-size installation in Missouri. “This process can deal with the world’s waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And it can slow down global warming.”

    The [Thermal Depolymerization Process, TDP] process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores. According to Appel, waste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.

    “The potential is unbelievable,” says Michael Roberts, a senior chemical engineer for the Gas Technology Institute, an energy research group. “You’re not only cleaning up waste; you’re talking about distributed generation of oil all over the world.”

    If the process works as well as its creators claim, not only would most toxic waste problems become history, so would imported oil. Just converting all the U.S. agricultural waste into oil and gas would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. In 2001 the United States imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil. Referring to U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East, R. James Woolsey, former CIA director and an adviser to Changing World Technologies, says, “This technology offers a beginning of a way away from this.”


    Cool, huh? If this works, it will be the ultimate triumph of the free-market. The idea was had not by a government lab or organization, but by a clever entrepeneur. It provides any business with industrial waste a way to not only cheaply recycle that waste, but to profit on it as well. Its development is funded primarily by private financiers, with a few million in seed money from the the government. It promises to end the West’s reliance on foreign oil while simultaneously cleaning up all carbon-based industrial waste (basically everything except nuclear waste). That means, for the first time in human history, we will have a closed-cycle economy in which waste is recycled into useable, valueable, useful products. Fuel cells schmuel cells, TDP certainly deserves a lot more interest than it is getting.

  • Ryanspeed


    You are falling victim to the classic environmental BS that I had attempted to outline previously.

    All of the aforementioned energy reclamation processes require ENERGY INPUT!!! The overall energy expenditure is greater than with oil, but if it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to believe that crap, go ahead!

    And on a different note, there have been a number of comments regarding the costs of the US space program of the ’60s, yet none of the commentators have included the political capital gained in their cost analysis. Public policy cannot be equated only in regards to environmental and economic impact.

    I think that irregardless of a moral basis for communism, the soviet communists would have made significant political gains in the environment of the ’60s, had they been the first to the moon.

    The same could have been said for the fact that they were the first in space, had they not barbequed half their population in that endeavor.

  • David Gillies

    A big problem with adoption of a hydrogen economy is that to be competitive with oil, the price of oil has to rise. But as oil prices rise, sources that hitherto were not economically viable to exploit become viable. There is no fixed level of oil reserves. The extractable oil in the world is different at $10, $20, $40 and $80 a barrel (by wildly different amounts).

  • matt


    Did you actually read the article?

    Thermal depolymerization, Appel says, has proved to be 85 percent energy efficient for complex feedstocks, such as turkey offal: “That means for every 100 Btus in the feedstock, we use only 15 Btus to run the process.”

    So whilst there’s an energy input there’s also a net gain. Plus the nice side benefits of reducing landfill costs etc…

    “This is our first-out plant, and we estimate we’ll make oil at $15 a barrel. In three to five years, we’ll drop that to $10, the same as a medium-size oil exploration and production company. And it will get cheaper from there.”

    As the more accesible oil sources run out surely these kind of prices would be competitive?
    I wouldn’t say the backers fitted the ‘tree hugger’ stereotype either.. So I’m not really sure why you’re so dismissive, I thought it looked a promising technology.

    OT I think the political capital derived from projects such as the Moon landings is frequently overstated. Sure, people admire the acheivement, but do you really think they significantly altered their politics accordingly? How many people embraced the Command economy when they learned that Gagarin was in space? Politicians frequently use this argument to justify their own ego driven, money grabbing agendas simply because the costs and benefits are so unquantifiable.

    Also, The ‘barbecuing’ remark was unfortunate particularly given the recent loss of the Columbia IMHO.

    Wasn’t just you and Mark. Believe it or not, the crap Turkey guts joke I made earlier was a result of reading the article, not the manifestation of a fixation with offal… 😉

  • Byron


    You are falling victim to not RTFA! The BIG DEAL IS THAT TDP IS 85% ENERGY EFFICIENT! You’d know that if you had read it.

    Honestly, it would be nice to hear some informed criticism of this article, since Discover is 100% positive on TDP and the writer presents no cons or obstacles to it. It sounds like a lot of hype, except for the fact that it is already working on an industrial scale at a plant in Missouri. Perhaps it’s the real deal.

  • Byron

    matt – my bad, I skimmed through the comments looking for discussion of this, but missed your remark.

  • Anthony Suruda

    The U.S. has been down this road before. In the late 70’s the federal govt. spent some $27 billion on synthetic fuel development such as processing shale oil to produce gasoline. Then the price of oil tanked and the project became economically unfeasible. If producing hydrogen for consumer use made economic sense, Exxon/Mobil would develop it.

  • Anthony Suruda

    The U.S. has been down this road before. In the late 70’s the federal govt. spent some $27 billion on synthetic fuel development such as processing shale oil to produce gasoline. Then the price of oil tanked and the project became economically unfeasible. If producing hydrogen for consumer use made economic sense, Exxon/Mobil would develop it.

  • Doug Collins

    Re the turkey guts article:

    Down in the text, it mentions that one of their major innovations is a dewatering subprocess that uses a pressure drop to flash water to steam. That goes through a heat extraction loop to reclaim as much of the heat energy as possible. Apparently, the extraction of water from refuse was one of the major energy costs in recycling of this type. So perhaps the process is more efficient than older methods.
    I’m a struggling middle-aged petroleum geologist,still waiting for my first obscene profits to roll in, so I have no bias toward these folks, but from the little I know about the refining end of my industry, this sounds plausible.

    By the way, in a reply to an earlier comment in this thread, I carelessly addressed the writer -Tedd- as Todd… My apologies and I am still curious about fuel efficiency if he cares to comment.

  • Byron

    Yeah Doug, that’s the crux of the whole process, isn’t it? Previous versions evaporated the water out with ungodly amounts of heat, the cost of generating which made the process energy inefficient. The new innovation heats the sludge to only 500 degrees, not too much more than most home cooking ovens. But it also applies a large amount of pressure to the sludge simultaneously. The water is then flash-evaporated out by an instaneous release of that pressure, which is much more energy efficient. All in all, it’s an extremely clever manipulation of the Ideal Gas Law. So apparently simple to laymen like me, it makes me wonder why somebody didn’t think of this before. Especially me, darnit! 😉

  • T. Hartin

    Keep in mind, the turkey gut extractor is only a prototype that right now is in the process of being hyped to venture capitalists. You should bring your large grain of salt to THAT pitch meeting.

    Even if it works as advertised, the big question is, how scalable is it? Does the magic heat extractor work as well if scaled up 100 times? Do we have enough turkey guts (or whatever feedstock) to produce a meaningful amount of oil? Is the “oil” this thing produces substitutable across the board for petroleum?

    One of the efficiency dodges that the entrepeneur is probably engaging in, BTW, is how much energy it takes to produce the feedstock, or, (scalability again) how much it would take to produce enough feedstock from lower-grade materials to generate a meaningful amount of oil.

  • Larry

    Thank you, T. Hartin.

    As a financial guy, I was reluctant to jump in on the this. As one who has seen thousands of proposals, I agree that they need to be viewed with a contrary attitude.

    If 50% of them worked 50% as well as promised, we’d have paradise on Earth and colonies on Andromeda.

    Interesting tendency on these thread lately — libertarian topics (i.e. did we get a good return from NASA) get little interest. More interest in turkey guts to energy schemes, and war rally editorials.

    Nothing wrong with this, of course. More a reflection on where we’re at now.

  • hmmm…in light of the Middle East, “it’s all about oil” theme, I think the technological discussion is quite appropriate to a Libertarian blog. In fact, I had planned on starting a blog around very similar themes. How can we solve the world’s problems *without* government intervention (which sure as hell ain’t doing a good job of solving them, now).

    1) On the topic of “hydrogen economy”, it’s wayyyyyy overblown. As others have said, hydrogen is a storage medium, not a primary source of energy. (At least not on Earth!) The hydrogen economy isn’t going to solve our problems. However, there are technologies already in place that do a very good job at solving those problems: ethanol and methanol. Especially here in the US, ethanol and methanol, produced from agricultural feedstock, would go a longgggg way to killing those damned farm subsidies, while reducing oil imports. As for the “production” of energy sources, already in the us about 1,500,000 million barrels of (oil equivalent) are produced every day. This includes ethanol, MBTE, etc. And for those of you who think the government is over regulating. Pure ethanol fuel must be “de-natured” (made toxic to humans) otherwise it is taxed as Liquor instead of fuel. (Doh!)

    2) As for government funding of research….I must admit that I’m leaning more towards gov’t funding of *pure* research as well as some for *applied* research where it is in the interest of the military. Here in the US, a lot of academic engineering research is funded through DARPA, an agency of the Department of Defense. As the military is often considered one of the few legitimate reasons for gov’t, I think that overall DARPA funding is legitimate.

  • Doug Collins

    Sorry not to link this, but I got it in email and can’t find the link. It is very germane to this discussion though–the turkey gut system does not produce that much gas. And you can’t really blame OPEC for this one – we really have more than sufficient gas to be found in the US, but because of a mixture of disincentatives and some unfortunate changes in the sociology of the oil and gas industry- we haven’t been looking for it.

    April 21, 2003, 11:51PM

    Natural gas still depleted
    Bloomberg Business News

    NEW YORK — The time of year to rebuild natural gas inventories has begun, and U.S. supplies are so depleted it will be hard to sock away enough for next winter.

    That means a hot summer that increases the gas used for power generation may push wholesale prices past the all-time highs touched earlier this year.

    The amount of gas stored in the United States is at a record-low 623 billion cubic feet, following a colder-than-normal winter, and production is behind demand.

    “Sometime between now and the winter you’re going to see a big pop in gas prices,” said Steven Farris, CEO of Apache, a Houston-based explorer and producer of oil and gas. “We don’t have enough natural gas to meet demand.”

    Production fell by about 2.6 percent in 2002 and is projected to recoup only part of that decline this year as demand gains almost 3 percent, according to the Energy Department. Storage facilities need to be filled at a record pace to reach normal levels by winter, when demand peaks, the agency said.

    Natural gas heats about half of U.S. homes and generates 17 percent of the nation’s power. Electricity prices rallied as gas prices climbed earlier this year. Some makers of fertilizer and chemicals, for which natural gas can be the biggest raw material cost, cut production earlier this year because they couldn’t recover the higher expense.

    April is typically the end of the heating season and the month when inventories start to rise, heading to a peak at year’s end.

    “If we have a hotter-than-normal summer, with some key nuclear plant outages and a couple of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, then you’re probably looking at record-low storage going into winter,” said Tim Evans, senior energy analyst with IFR Pegasus in New York. Hurricanes can interrupt the output of offshore drilling rigs. “If on top of that we get a November or December cold snap, you may be looking at $20,” Evans said. “That’s where this market could go.”

    Natural gas reached a peak of $11.899 per thousand cubic feet in February.

    Storage levels are down 49 percent from the five-year average, slashed by the frigid winter that ate through 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. Stockpiles peaked at 3.17 trillion cubic feet in October. Analysts say a level of about 3 trillion is needed at the start of the season to meet demand during an average winter.

    “The record low inventories could really mean disaster next winter if we can’t turn this around,” said Marshall Steeves, an energy analyst with Refco Group in New York.

  • Ted Schuerzinger


    Don’t the farm states lobby for subsidies for ethanol already?

  • Byron

    T. Hartin: Even if it works as advertised, the big question is, how scalable is it? Does the magic heat extractor work as well if scaled up 100 times?

    From the article:

    Experiments at the pilot facility [in Philadelphia] revealed that the process is scalable – plants can sprawl over acres and handle over 4000 tons of waste a day or be “small enough to go on the back of flatbed truck” and handle just one ton daily…

    It’s already proven it can do in the low tons of waste at the Philadelphia pilot plant. Of course, the full-scale Carthage, Missouri plant will be ultimate proof of scalability. It should be going online right about now, so hopefully we’ll hear in the next few months if it is a success.

    T. Hartin: Do we have enough turkey guts (or whatever feedstock) to produce a meaningful amount of oil? Is the “oil” this thing produces substitutable across the board for petroleum?

    Again, from the article:

    If the process works as well as its creators claim, not only would most toxic waste problems become history, so would imported oil. Just converting all the U.S. agricultural waste [about 600 million tons per year] into oil and gas would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. In 2001 the United States imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil.

    T. Hartin: One of the efficiency dodges that the entrepeneur is probably engaging in, BTW, is how much energy it takes to produce the feedstock,

    No, the feedstock is going to be produced anyway. It’s farm refuse that is produced regardless whether TDP is used or not. That energy useage is a sunk cost. TDP simply enables companies to recover a good portion of it.

  • Byron


    T. HartinIs the “oil” this thing produces substitutable across the board for petroleum?

    From the article:

    On a wet afternoon in Carthage, he smiles at the new plant?an artless assemblage of gray and dun-colored buildings?as if it were his favorite child. “This plant will make 10 tons of gas per day, which will go back into the system to make heat to power the system,” he says. “It will make 21,000 gallons of water, which will be clean enough to discharge into a municipal sewage system. Pathological vectors will be completely gone. It will make 11 tons of minerals and 600 barrels of oil, high-quality stuff, the same specs as a number two heating oil.” He shakes his head almost as if he can’t believe it. “It’s amazing. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t even consider us waste handlers. We are actually manufacturers?that’s what our permit says. This process changes the whole industrial equation. Waste goes from a cost to a profit.”

  • Byron

    As a financial guy, I was reluctant to jump in on the this. As one who has seen thousands of proposals, I agree that they need to be viewed with a contrary attitude.

    As an aspiring financial guy, I understand your point. However, correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t there a difference between proposals and working pilot projects and full-scale industrial installations? Haven’t the financial guys already applied their contrary attitude, decided this is the real mccoy, and granted it the tens of millions of funding necessary to build the Philadelphia and Carthage plants?

    Interesting tendency on these thread lately — libertarian topics (i.e. did we get a good return from NASA) get little interest. More interest in turkey guts to energy schemes, and war rally editorials.

    “Turkey guts and energy schemes” are very libertarian topics. I’m surprised so few seem to get that. How many years have leftist, statist activists pressured the government into taking action on environmental matters using emotional appeals and FUD? Kyoto Treaty? Global Warming? Clean Air Act? Clean Water Act? Emissions caps? Ring a bell? I’m sure Britain has their version of all these too. As most libertarians know, many of these leftist complaints are founded not on a sound basis in facts and reason, but on FUD and other spurious PR tactics that serve to needlessly increase government power over society (or purposefully increase it, if you’re on the left).

    Free-market libertarians have claimed for years that government intervention creates more problems than it solves, and that the free market addresses and solves problems better than the government ever can. However, when it comes to the environment, there is yet to be any convincing proof of that notion, making it easy for leftists to dismiss libertarian claims on the matter, and difficult for the general public to subscribe to them.

    Now, along comes a new waste reclamation technology that appears so promising that Warren Buffet’s son invests in it (a big deal, as the Buffets don’t invest lightly). No one can supply any criticism of this technology besides the standard critiques of why older versions of it have failed in the past. No one has specifically argued against the PV=nRT innovation in the new version. Everything everyone has said in this thread so far has been answered by a single Discover article, which half of us even failed to read before jumping to conclusions and criticising. And if TDP works as advertised, not only will it solve the West’s industrial waste problem and virtually eradicate our dependence on islamofascist despots for oil, it will also finally offer solid proof for the environmental debate that the free market does indeed solve social problems better than the government.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I consider that a big deal. Certainly worthy of more than the ho-hums and standard knee-jerk criticisms based on older technology and an unread article that it’s receiving. Samizdata is for critically rational people, but being critically rational means actually criticizing the value out of an issue, not simply pooh-pooing it b/c it’s similar to something you’ve heard of before, or because every past attempt has failed so this one must too. Show me some valid critiques of why this particular technology may fail (either technological or economic) and I’ll happily shut up. Otherwise, consider the possibility that due to this technology, the world’s industrial nations, oil supplying nations, free market supporters, and envirofascists may be witnessing the beginning of a significant economic paradigm shift.

  • Larry

    Re: Turkey guts to energy
    I doubt that the inventor can act as a reliable source about the capabilities of the system. It’s just another concept device at this point. Hundreds, thousands have tried & failed since 1970. This might be it, but we do not know yet.

    Re: US oil & nat gas

    The US has been extensively explored. Numerous stastical studies have indicated that the odds of large undiscovered reserves in the continental US are very small.

    Canada has more nat. gas, but even there some evidence indicates that the return from exploratory drilling is declining.

    We could have shortages & rising prices in the next few years, with “demand destruction” — rising prices eliminating price-sensitive usage.

    Longer term, the technology to cheaply & safely transport nat gas by sea is developing quickly. This clean fuel is flared — deliberately burned — in most oil producing regions.

  • Doug Collins

    Re: US oil & nat gas

    I have to disagree strongly with Larry’s contention that the US has been extensively explored. It is true as he says that “Numerous stastical studies have indicated that the odds of large undiscovered reserves in the continental US are very small.” but I believe most or all of these studies are flawed. Their biggest flaw is that they are done by people who are undoubtedly very expert at statistics and geology, but who know little about generating oil and gas prospects, let alone large regional exploration plays.
    Historically, about 80% of the discoveries in this country have been made by individuals and independent companies. These have been decimated over the last couple of decades. The Oil and Gas Journal, an industry organ that has been around since 1903, published an annual summary of statistics on reserves and expenditures of the largest 500 companies up until 1986. These were the “O&G Journal 500”. Then they were the 400 then the 200. I think now it’s about 150.
    The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, our ‘AMA’, made a survey of average age about a year ago. It is 49 years old.
    Wallace Pratt, the man who started Humble’s(now Exxon’s) scientific staff before WW1, had a maxim that used to be drummed into the head of every new graduate geologist: “Oil is found in the minds of men.” We are running out of minds, not natural gas.
    Oil might be getting scarce, since it tends to occur in the shallower formations, although even it may be more plentiful than we think. (For details, contact me-and keep your checkbook handy-I’m not posting that for free.)
    Gas, on the other hand, should still be very plentiful if we would just start wildcatting for it. In an earlier post, I said we had some unfortunate sociological problems in this industry. One is obviously the greying of the technical staff. Another is that investors have been spoiled by a major advance that happened in about 1972. At that time, we gained the ability to actually ‘see’ gas reservoirs in certain sorts of formations. These were young, not very well compacted or cemented rocks, like the sort in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi Delta. That ability caused a huge reduction in the risk associated with wildcatting. It was the cause of the multi-hundred million dollar bids made for offshore acreage during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
    That ability has been refined and improved over the following decades, but it has not kept up with the depletion of the sort of reservoirs for which it works. Most of them have now been drilled, and we are in a pattern of diminishing returns as they become more marginal and smaller year by year. Those are the undiscovered reserves that the statistical studies see diminishing.
    On the other hand, just in the Gulf of Mexico alone, there are numerous large, deeper and more highly pressured potential traps that do not and will not give a “bright spot”, the jargon name for the seismic gas indicator to which we have become addicted. At meeting after meeting, papers are presented pointing this out. We all listen, nod in agreement and then realize no one will gut up and drill them on any serious basis until someone else proves repeatedly that they are there.
    Onshore there are other very significant gas possibilities. Again, I am not about to talk about them without being paid, but anyone who really knows how to generate a prospect should confirm what I am saying.
    I honestly don’t know what it will take to generate the necessary investment. The majors gave up and left years ago. Lately there has been talk of the larger remaining independents pulling up stakes and going overseas also. I am absolutely convinced that this is not a shortage of reserves, but instead a shortage of vision and imagination. Unfortunately most investors discount those very severely. There is a huge opportunity here, but I’m still trying to figure out how to exploit it.
    Meanwhile, most of our more recent innovations, like horizontal drilling and super detailed 3D seismic surveys are largely used to deplete the existing fields faster and more efficiently. There is a little increase of incremental reserves from these techniques, but by and large they are more useful for depletion than for finding more reserves that we didn’t have before. This may finally be causing a real shortage, rather than the kind of market distortions we saw in the 1970’s.
    And I wouldn’t depend too much on Canada. Their gas demand is increasing and they have the same wildcatting problems we do. They may be increasingly likely to want to keep their gas home.

  • Ted:

    Yes, and no. I hail from Illinois and I own stock in *gasp* ADM, which is the biggest single ethanol producer here in the US. The subsidies granted to the ethanol industry are real and varied. From a cursory study, it’s difficult to determine how the subsidies are structured. There is some concrete subsidies in the form of research R&D and plant capital grants and loans. No denying that. But AFAIK, most of the subsidies are really tax credits and waivers. Depending on your morals, these may or may not count.

    From a reading of different sources, there is still some debate on the economics of ethanol. As usual, the big picture, holistic view is difficult to estimate. The simple numbers are in favor of oil, at the moment…but if you factor in “security” considerations for protection of foreign oil imports, long term environmental impact, et al. The price differential may close quite a bit. Also, since the production cost of ethanol is based on crop prices — which are themselves artificially inflated by subsidies — the waters are so muddy its very difficult to see clearly what the true price of production would be. Also, as an optimist of technology, I have great faith that should oil prices rise a little higher for long periods, a great deal of technological investment and advancement will further decrease the cost of ethanol production.

    What I think is a prudent decision here in the US, and this definitely does not apply to all nations, is to pursue a mixed strategy of gasoline and alcohol. E85 or M85 (85% alcohol and 15% gasoline) has already been tested and proven for sometime.

    Again…this is just my 2 cents. 😉

  • Larry

    Re: Contin. US nat gas

    Not my area of expertise, but seems unlikely that lack of funds limits exploration of US. The lack of ideas, yes. I believe that’s always a limiting factor in almost every field!

    As a counter-example to the lack of $ thesis, (an indication only, not a proof), the search for oil deposits of inorganic origin — pure wildcatting — has received funding for some large scale, expensive trials, despite previous failures.

    It’s still an open issue, however. If true, it might greatly change the economic & geopolitical landscape.

  • Doug Collins

    Re: Contin. US nat gas

    I did not intend to imply that a lack of funds was limiting US exploration. I am sure there would be plenty of money available if it was seen as profitable. The problem is that it is not seen as profitable compared to other alternative investments.
    To be absolutely frank, I suspect that wildcatting in and of itself, has never been profitable, just as investing in vacations to Las Vegas has never been profitable. The difference is that successful wildcatting should yield a string of profitable subsequent development wells. In ideal circumstances, when the successful wildcat prospect is truly innovative, it can lead to whole new petroleum provinces to exploit. The Las Vegas analogy would be winning not just a few bucks on a successful bet but a dividend paying bond or the deed to a successful grocery store in Terre Haute.

    My basic point was that there is a dearth of ideas, due to:
    1. Decimation of the experienced technical manpower of the industry by the repeated layoffs and firings of the last two decades. and
    2. A spoiling of the investment community by the hydrocarbon indicator technology of the last 25 years, which greatly lowered risk in the limited areas in which it works. This has led to excessive risk aversion and a fast payout mindset. Today’s investors prefer drilling in a subset of existing fields and fairways for immediate modest profits over drilling more risky wildcats that take longer to produce much more sizeable payouts.
    Investors, of course, have a right to place their cash as they choose. I believe the situation is moving toward a crisis for the US economy and toward a tremendous opportunity for whoever could find a way to take advantage of the situation.

  • Byron

    I doubt that the inventor can act as a reliable source about the capabilities of the system.

    How about the inventor, plus Howard Buffet (Warren Buffet’s son), James Woosely (ex. Dir CIA), the Federal Govt., and $40 million worth of private investors, plus Discover magazine (who aren’t exactly science dunces)?

  • Larry

    You’re right — it might work.

    My point was to suggest avoiding excess enthusiasm.

    First, even if successful the lag from development to widespread adoption can be decades.

    Second, R&D is max uncertain. Many ventures with big names & gov’t support fail. Look at the 40 years of private & public investment in fuel cells. That’s a good thing; we grow by our willingness to push the boundaries of the envelope.

  • Politics are uncertain too. The article brushes off the idea that the oil companies would object to this technology, but I’m not convinced. Even a single oil company can afford many more politicians and EPA bureaucrats than a small R&D company.

  • Larry,

    Not so fast. Fuel cells are commercially successful if exploited at scale. I know of at least one rural electric coop that uses distributed fuel cell generators.

    I don’t want to climb aboard the fuel cell bandwagon, but the potential payoffs for that gamble are pretty large. The problem with fuel cells, AFAIK, at the moment are issues of scaling them down to work in automobiles.